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January 26, 2006
Fact or Fiction?: The Chinese Eat Dogs

For hundreds of millions of Chinese around the world, Sunday will mark the beginning of the Year of the Dog, which is a fitting symbol for the cultural differences that have to be bridged between China and the rest of the world.

Given China's historical attitudes toward dogs and the emerging Chinese interest in keeping pets, many Westerners have often pondered, "Do Chinese really eat dogs?"

According to Tom Doctoroff, author of Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, published this month by Palgrave Macmillan, the answer is, historically, a declarative "yes."

"True, there are some hot pot dog restaurants, particularly in the South, and one or two on the sparkling streets of Shanghai, but most educated folks wouldn't admit to having a dog sandwich for lunch," explains Doctoroff. "But globalization is everywhere, and with international standards of behavior and consumerism impacting China too, dog chowing is less and less popular."

The pampered pooches of the West reap the fruits of being "man's best friend," but dogs in China are only now emerging from centuries of low status. Chinese attitudes toward pets, in general, are very different from those in the West, where spoiled pets are treated as part of the family. In the U.K., pet care sales are more than 3.3 billion pounds a year (euro 4.9 billion); in Germany, it's around euro 3 billion; and in France, it's over euro 3 billion. In the United States, sales of pet food, supplies, grooming, and veterinary care totaled around US$35.9 billion in 2005 (euro 29 billion), according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

By contrast, until very recently, people in China have been more concerned with feeding themselves, rather than wasting food and affection on pets. Then, there are the negative associations: dogs, in particular, are associated with the lower strata of society. They have traditionally been despised as boot lickers, pawns of the powerful, bound and tethered servants, and simpletons.

While Chinese attitude toward pets and dogs is gradually changing, it's mostly a newly prosperous minority that is taking an interest in pets. Dog ownership can also be construed as social pretension, a quick and easy symbol of Western middle class extravagance. Although pet ownership is becoming acceptable in the past few years, owners can still be perceived as empty vessels.

The fact that the dog is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese calendar does not mean that the Chinese revere dogs or regard them as special animals. Far from it. "A pig year is thought to be lucky, but a dog year is just a modest, normal, conventional, boring, unexciting year," Doctoroff says.

"More and more people own dogs. They used be a symbol of the petite bourgeoisie and were, until recently, politically incorrect. Even today, the license fees are extremely expensive, as to suggest that they are some sort of material extravagance. In fact, the stereotypical dog owner is called 'er nai,' which literally means 'second breast,' but figuratively means 'second wife' or, more commonly, 'mistress,'" Doctoroff explains, citing it as example of how different China can be. "The only way for multinational companies to succeed in China is to fully embrace the fundamentally different worldview that China represents. They can only penetrate the market by understanding its dramatically different cultural and operational landscape. My book balances optimism with realism because the opportunity is easy to squander."

Tom Doctoroff is CEO of Greater China and Northeast Asia Area Director for JWT, the largest advertising agency in the U.S. and fourth largest in the world. He arrived in Greater China in 1994 as a Regional Business Director and has 11 years of intensive experience in Hong Kong and China. In 2003, he was named Regional Agency Head of the Year by the region's leading marketing and advertising publication, Media magazine, and in 2004, he received the prestigious Magnolia Government Award in recognition of his contributions to Shanghai's economic development. His book, Billions, illuminates the critical role of Chinese culture in shaping buying decisions and translates consumer insights into strategies for long-term success in the Middle Kingdom.

Pets are just one of the many cultural issues to be addressed. In the book, Doctoroff equips readers with tools to understand and harness the underlying motivations of Chinese shoppers and reveals the pitfalls many multinational companies encounter. He also identifies ways marketers can leverage the 2008 Beijing Olympics and optimize sponsorship opportunities surrounding the Games.

In the foreword to the book, Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive of JWT parent company, WPP, reinforces the book's premise by speaking of the growth and development he has witnessed since his first visit to China in 1989, as well as the significance of understanding the differences between China and the Western world.

Source : PR news wire